As London theatre attempts to re-emerge from lockdown after lockdown, Sonia Friedman launches the aptly named ‘RE:EMERGE’ season at the Harold Pinter Theatre, opening with Amy Berryman’s engrossing commentary on the climate emergency, Walden. Directed by Ian Rickson, and with a ninety-minute run time, this ingenious piece of drama takes an awkward family reunion and uses it as an allegory for the state of our planet.
Set in a futuristic version of our world, the climate emergency has reached tipping point, and as government seeks to colonise a new world for earth’s inhabitants, a movement is rising that believes efforts should be refocused on saving the planet we already have. Freshly returned from a mission to the Moon, Cassie (Lydia Wilson) visits twin sister Stella (Gemma Arterton) and new partner Brian (Fehinti Balogun).
There’s a history between the sisters; their fathers work driving them both to become astronauts, but only Cassie made it through the training, leaving Stella back on earth, a NASA architect working in a bar and living in a cabin in the woods, one of the few places left on earth where the air is breathable. Walden is, on one hand, a family-based drama; sibling rivalries revisited as a result of a new fiancé on the scene, but on the other it’s a complex examination of humanity, revelling in the possibilities that holds.
The futuristic, sci-fi elements very much take a back seat to allow the audience to get to the heart of the drama. This is helped to some extent by Rae Smith’s set design, which focusses on the simple cabin, a reminder of Thoreau’s novel which lends its name to this play. The sweet smell of smoke spills from a stage adorned with objects very much recognisable from the 21st century, but without a hint of technology in sight.
Perhaps what works so well for Walden is how Amy Berryman has made each character so gloriously contradictory; the architect working in a bar, the astronaut so desperate to remain on the ground, and an earth advocate who can barely contain his excitement at the prospect of technological advance. This allows an incredible dynamic between the characters that keeps the audience hooked throughout.
Berryman’s richly drawn characters are brought vividly to life by an outstanding cast. Arterton makes Stella’s disappointment and disillusion palpable, while Balogun’s portrayal of Brian soars with each new scene. Lydia Wilson becomes the glue that binds the production, introducing conflict and contemplation at the relevant moments.
If the intention of this season was to remind us of the joy of theatre, then this opener is a triumph. A compelling drama, astutely written, and at a time when it matters most. For the audience emerging back in to London’s (mostly) breathable air, there was perhaps a sense that Walden could mark a turning point, and not only for theatre.